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Cornell study examines trade-off between critical metals requirement and transportation decarbonization

A team from Cornell, with a colleague from Paul Scherrer Institute, has analyzed the trade-off between the decarbonization potential of the road transportation sector and its critical metal requirement from the demand-side perspective in 48 major countries committing to decarbonize their road transportation sectors aided by electric vehicles (EVs).

In an open-access paper published in Nature Communications, the team reports that deploying EVs with 40–100% penetration by 2050 can increase lithium, nickel, cobalt, and manganese demands by 2909–7513%, 2127–5426%, 1039–2684%, and 1099–2838%, respectively, and grow platinum group metal requirement by 131–179% in the 48 investigated countries, relative to 2020.

Higher EV penetration reduces GHG emissions from fuel use regardless of the transportation energy transition, while those from fuel production are more sensitive to energy-sector decarbonization and could reach nearly “net zero” by 2040.

—Zhang et al.


(a) Annual demand and recycling potential with or without a second use. (b) Region-specific/vehicle-specific/battery-specific cumulative (from 2010 to 2050) demand for critical metals and the cumulative potential secondary production from recycling. (c) Sensitivity of cumulative requirement under different battery scenarios. NMC/NCA scenario illustrates that the market share of NMC/NCA will increase to 100% by 2050. “Recycling w/o 2nd” indicates retired batteries that are directly recycled without a second life as energy storage systems (ESSs). “Recycling w/2nd” denotes retired batteries reused as ESSs before recycling. LDV light-duty vehicle, HDV heavy-duty vehicle, BEV battery electric vehicle, PHEV plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, FCEV fuel cell electric vehicle, ICEV internal combustion engine vehicle, LFP lithium iron phosphate battery, NCA lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide battery, NMC lithium nickel cobalt manganese oxide battery, Li-S lithium-sulfur battery, Li-air lithium-air battery. Zhang et al.

Monotonic growth in global demand for critical metals to 2050 is the most prevalent trend. It’s mainly driven by the electric vehicle market penetration and battery technology development.

—Fengqi You, senior author

Currently, critical metals and minerals are centralized in politically unstable Chile, Congo, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa, according to the World Bank.

In the paper, the researchers note caution on the electrification of heavy-duty vehicles, which require more critical metals than other vehicles. Although they account for only between 4% and 11% of the total road fleet in some countries, battery-related critical metals used in heavy-duty electric vehicles will account for 62% of the critical metal demand in the decades ahead.

Among the researchers’ suggestions for managing this demand:

  • Constructing a circular economy would be indispensable to the critical metals if it achieved a closed-loop supply chain in the future. Strategies should be considered to promote the recycling efficiency and recovery rate of end-of-life batteries at a proper pace.

  • Countries should adopt policies that prioritize alternative designs for cathodes/anodes and fuel-cell (green hydrogen) systems to reduce the reliance on primary critical metals.

  • Decarbonization targets for road transportation should be coupled with electric vehicle deployment, the timing of carbon peak and neutrality, and accurate emission budgets.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation.


  • Chunbo Zhanget al. (2023) “Trade-off between critical metal requirement and transportation decarbonization in automotive electrification,” Nature Communications doi: 10.1038/s41467-023-37373-4



Price rises will spur adoption of new reduced critical metals demand technology.


Which will make this projection wrong. But it's good to serve as a warning and opportunity for the R&D sector.


Materials substitution is handy, but unfortunately does not always happen when you need it.

' Although they account for only between 4% and 11% of the total road fleet in some countries, battery-related critical metals used in heavy-duty electric vehicles will account for 62% of the critical metal demand in the decades ahead.'

Those sorts of stats makes me think that alternatives are well worth looking at and developing, not necessarily to totally replace BEV in heavy vehicles, but enough to take the pressure off,

There are a number of alternatives, from Cummins low carbon ICE alternatives to overhead catenaries or perhaps through the road charging although the tech is pretty immature..

Note in this context of trying to reduce critical material bottlenecks I don't cite FCEV, as in vehicles they use PEM, which does not help reduce precious metal loading.


@dave, I am a big fan of overhead catenaries, combined with smaller batteries.
Trolleybuses already use overhead contacts, but you have to litter the streets with continuous wires to maintain power.
If you add batteries to this, you can keep the wires to the outer reaches of the lines, and leave the city centres clear.
The same could be done on motorways, where you would have overhead lines for certain parts of the runs (the long straight bits).
IMO, the problems are agreeing standards, and making sure that vehicles do not collide with the overhead rails and tear them down.
I imagine the catenaries would be too tall for cars and SUVs, so they would have to use batteries or range extenders, as they do now.

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